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  • The Mac Power User/User Disconnect

    March 22nd, 2010

    Back in the 1990s, as Apple struggled to build an industrial strength operating system to take it into the 21st century, they were exhorted to make sure preemptive multitasking was implemented. In those days, Macs had cooperative multitasking, which meant that each app had to play nicely with other apps and make sure they didn’t use too many resources when not frontmost.

    Now in the real world, the Classic Mac OS worked pretty well. Sure there were times the system would come crashing down and you had to restart. There were times when it would just get so damned slow, you couldn’t get any productive work done. That usually happened when lots of apps were opened and the primitive virtual memory system was working overtime swapping code from hard drive to RAM and back again.

    It was so bad, you had to wonder why Macs were so heavily used for content creation. But, wait a minute! In the real world, only power users cared. For regular people, so long as your Mac could run your favorite apps with decent performance and without crashing too often, the fineries of the operating system’s plumbing didn’t make a difference.

    But you had to care about what the Mac OS lacked. The tech pundits told you so, and how can you ignore them?

    Certainly the ongoing soap opera over Copland — that failed operating system project — made it seem as if Apple was doomed on the spot if they didn’t change. True, they got to the point of hemorrhaging loads of money, but due to other reasons, including poor promotion, poor product planning, and a proliferation of models that would make Dell proud.

    As you know, even after Apple bought NeXT, and Steve Jobs returned to the fold, it took several years to build Mac OS X. At first, Apple tried to take the original NeXT OS, make it look more Mac-like, and get it out the door. But developers balked, because they didn’t want to be forced to rebuild all their apps in a very different programming language. When the likes of Adobe and Microsoft and loads of lesser companies said no, Apple got the message and created Carbon and the Aqua interface to create at least a decent simulation of the Mac OS.

    Even then, the first concerns expressed after Mac OS X landed — other than the expected complaints about performance and various instabilities — were about the loss of certain features the power users demanded. From a configurable Apple menu to the legacy WindowShade feature, where a single click collapses a window to the title bar rather than shrink with a visual flourish to the Dock, the list of what you lost was endless. Yes, I know you can get these and more from third party utility developers.

    At the same time, I got to talk with lots of regular Mac users as Mac OS X matured, and I can’t recall anyone clamoring for those features. Yes, our Comments section offered suggestions of one sort or another, but what portion of the overall Mac community ever concerned themselves over what was lost?

    That takes us to the iPhone. When it arrived, you read endless commentaries about the features Apple must add yesterday. Some, such as cut, copy and paste, made loads of sense and I’m not altogether convinced that Apple was right in giving this capability a lower priority than loads of others. I chafed at its lack, and I’m glad it’s here, although the implementation is still somewhat flaky.

    Multitasking remains front and center. Other smartphones have it. Why not Apple? Why are the interface police keeping this important feature from our grasp? Is this not one of those arbitrary power grabs in which Apple engages for reasons we cannot fathom, perhaps because they just want to exert higher levels of control on their user base?

    Of course, such suspicions don’t make a bit of sense. I mean, if Apple felt they could offer multitasking efficiently for the apps they didn’t write, and that most users would even care, they would have done it long before now. There would be no delay. It would be there, front and center!

    The real issue is that the tech writing community doesn’t routinely conduct scientific surveys of a full cross-section of the user base to figure out what real people want. At best, they’re just guessing, or perhaps talking amongst themselves to gauge public reaction.

    No, I don’t mean those informal polls that you see on many Web sites, where you just click and vote. That’s a random poll as far from scientific as you can get. I don’t want to prejudge the results either, but I bet that if you asked about many of the iPhone and Mac OS X features that the power users demand, you will get a “What’s that?” response most of the time.

    But Apple knows its market, and they understand quite well what features to add to their products and, more important, which ones to omit or postpone until a better implementation is devised. Yes, folks, let’s give them the benefit of knowing something for once.

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